An early career of distinction — punctuated with the discovery of planets in other solar systems — has earned Ohio State University researcher Scott Gaudi one of the highest honors given to young astronomers by the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

AAS has awarded Gaudi the Helen B. Warner Prize for Astronomy for his “significant and broad theoretical contributions to the field of exoplanet research, particularly in the area of microlensing detection and characterization of planetary systems, as well as for planets detected via transit and traditional radial velocity techniques.”

John Huchra, President of AAS, said that Gaudi’s work has “opened up an incredible new way to detect and very accurately characterize planets around other stars. He is very deserving of this award for young astronomers.”

The prize was announced Wednesday, January 7, 2009, at the awards banquet of the AAS winter meeting in Long Beach, CA.

In 2008, Astronomy Magazine named Gaudi one of the “10 Rising Stars of Astronomy.” Discover Magazine had previously named him one of “20 Scientists to Watch in 20 Years.”

Winners of the Warner Prize must have made a significant contribution to observational or theoretical astronomy within the last five years. They must also be younger than 36 years of age or have received their Ph.D. degree within the last eight years. Gaudi is 34 years old and received his Ph.D. from Ohio State in 2000.

Patrick Osmer, Vice Provost of Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate School at Ohio State, was chairman of the Department of Astronomy when Gaudi pursued his doctorate. He praised Gaudi’s “remarkably distinguished career trajectory.”

Before Gaudi returned to Ohio State as an assistant professor of astronomy in 2006, he won two prestigious fellowships: first, a Hubble Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, and then a Menzel Fellowship from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, MA.

“We are very happy that he is back with us, and look forward to his continued success in the Department of Astronomy,” Osmer added.

Bradley Peterson, chair of the Department of Astronomy, called the prize “a wonderful testament to the absolutely outstanding work Scott has been doing on detection and characterization of extra-solar planets, which is one of the forefront fields in modern astronomy.”

Gaudi’s work is helping to address one of humanity’s most fundamental questions: Are we alone in the universe? To get an answer, astronomers constantly scan the stars for any tiny changes in motion or brightness that could signal the existence of faraway planets — including ones that may support life.

Deciphering these light signals isn’t easy, and Gaudi has pioneered techniques for detecting planets and determining their characteristics — for instance, whether a newly-found planet resembles Jupiter, or a larger, colder version of our own Earth. His skills have brought him to the forefront of worldwide planet-hunting collaborations, where he frequently coordinates the efforts of astronomers around the globe.

In fact, of the eight planets that have been discovered using his preferred method of gravitational microlensing, Gaudi has been directly involved in the discovery of five.

Microlensing occurs when one star happens to cross in front of another as seen from Earth, and it magnifies the light from the more distant star like a lens. If planets are orbiting the lens star, they boost the magnification briefly as they pass by.

Gaudi led the analysis of a microlensing event in 2006 that turned out to be the first-ever discovery of two planets at once using this method.

Gaudi now joins the ranks of distinguished astronomers to win the Warner Prize since its inception in 1954, including: Nobel Laureate Riccardo Giacconi, who discovered cosmic x-ray sources; Allan Sandage, who devised a way to calculate the age and expansion rate of the universe; David Schramm, who was one of the world’s foremost experts on Big Bang theory; and John Bahcall, whose work helped to demonstrate that the standard model of particle physics is incomplete, and who was also instrumental in the creation of the Hubble Space Telescope.